My Neck, My Back: Dealing with Lower Back Pain on the BJJ Mats

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to address the prescriptive demands Khia discusses in her eloquent song. Regardless, “My neck, my back” is also a common refrain heard on the BJJ mats.

While I’m not a doctor nor do I play one on TV, I’ve been dealing with lower back issues for some time on and off the mats. I first hurt my lower back some twenty years ago barreling down an icy mountain on my ancient Burton Cruzer. I failed to catch an edge on the hard-packed snow and ended up tumbling down the rest of the run, my body twisting in all sorts of directions like some contortionist on methamphetamines.

Once I finally stopped and managed to undo my archaic bindings (I’m sure those bindings are now in some BDSM museum. They were horrible), shooting pain shot down my suddenly weak legs and I collapsed on my ass. I sat in a mild panic certain I’d slipped a disc or something and waited for my buddies. The lower back spasm dissipated enough for me to get on the chairlift and get home.

Thankfully, x-rays proved negative. Still, I ended in and out of chiropractor’s office for a few months. He gave me some exercises that helped a little, but never solved the spasms. Really, ibuprofen was the only thing that helped for a good long while.

I’ve had to deal with incredibly annoying back spasms for years since that terrible tumble. They would occur randomly in the middle of shooting hoops, lifting weights, grappling, making the beast with two backs, etc.

After a lot of work and research (working as an editor the fitness world for a handful of years helped even though there’s a ton of snake oil in that industry) alongside some due diligence I’ve pretty much fixed my lower back pain and spasms for, dare I say, good. Here are the various stretches and exercises that got me there.

Stretch Your Hip Flexors

When dealing with a tight lower back folks often try to stretch their hamstrings. Wrong! Okay, not quite incorrect, but the main culprit is often tight hip flexors – specifically the psoas major. The psoas connects directly to the lower spine as seen here. When these muscles tighten up they pull on our spine causing lower back pain and tightness. In fact, lower back pain is the most frequent symptom of Psoas Syndrome.

The most helpful vid I’ve found to help loosen up my hip flexors is by Antranik (a frequent contributor on r/fitness and r/flexibility on reddit). I usually find some show on Netflix or Hulu and just stretch for an episode (currently, it’s Attack on Titan. For the love of God, can Eren stop crying all the time? Or is that just an animé thing?):

 Deadlifts

On the poor assumption that it would make my back worse, I shied away from deadlifts for a long time. I assumed that I’d be putting my back at greater risk with such a movement. However, if there’s any one thing that I can attribute to remedying my lower back pain and spasms it’s deadlifts. It took a long time for me to get the form right, especially when adjusting for my body type (I’m all arms and legs). I never go heavy either. I keep the reps around the 5-8 range. I know touch-and-go reps are frowned upon by some, but they work for me. Maintaining form is my highest priority. My lower back and core are probably stronger and healthier than it’s ever been because of deadlifts. The only downside is that my obliques are a little bigger giving me love handles (It’s that or the pint of Ben & Jerry’s Pistachio Pistachio I shame eat in the AM darkness every week). Alan Thrall’s tutorials helped a ton:

Unlock Your Hips

I have an incredibly tight ass. I wish that was a humble brag, butt it’s not. My hips are just hopelessly stiff all the time. Tight hips contribute to lower back pain and can also lead to piriformis syndrome or, worse, sciatica. Judiciously rolling out my glutes and hip flexors with a lacrosse ball just about every night before stretching has loosened things up quite a bit in my hind portions. If a lacrosse ball is too painful, start with a basic foam roller:

Also, the 90/90 stretch is lifechanging:

Obviously, grappling isn’t exactly the greatest thing for our backs. Nothing like getting stacked by some behemoth to have that point driven home. I’d argue that constant sitting and being sedentary are probably worse for us though. Now go train :).

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